Discussing the self-portrait can feel like an exercise in tautological thinking: Of course the self-portrait reflects the artist—what do you think the “self” stands for, dummy? This, at least, was the view of the German painter Albrecht Dürer. When he painted his first self-portrait in 1499, he wrote “I have painted myself in my true colours” as an inscription. “The painting is not only in ‘True colors’,” the American philosopher Douglas P. Lackey explains, “but in ‘my true colors’, that is, colors possessed only by the subject, like ‘my shirt’.” It is fundamentally and definitionally autobiographical.
Dürer’s belief that the self-portrait was a unique window into the artist’s soul was—and remains—the prevailing way of thinking about self-portraiture. But is that true? Holly Marie Armishaw points out that the self-portrait tests the limits of our conception of the self:
“Many artists experiment with negating the self through hiding or masquerading within their works. In light of this practice, I am reminded of the philosophical thought experiments where one considers whether s/he would still be herself if s/he received a heart transplant. While most of us would still think that we are ourselves after a heart transplant, the same cannot be said if we were to consider a similar question, but with a brain transplant.”
Skin Deep, like Armishaw’s brain transplant example, is a test of how much self a self-portrait requires. The digital project created by artists Alon Chitayat and Rosalie Yu allows members of the public to paint portraits using 3D-scanned models of the artists as canvases. This process produces what Chitayat and Yu call “collaborative self portraits.” Using a combination of webcams, projectors, and projection surfaces, drawings can be mapped onto the 3D canvases in real time.
There’s a lot of the self in these-self portraits, but whose? On the one hand, the 3D-scanned canvases depict the contours of Citayat and Yu’s bodies more accurately than a paintbrush ever could. In this respect, 3D-scanning may be the ultimate form of self-portraiture, an idea also explored by the artist Lorna Barnshaw. But there is a subjective element to the self-portrait: it is a work of art, not anatomical science. Skin Deep outsources that subjectivity to other artists. Thus, self-awareness is mixed with a sense of perspective, literally and figuratively. This is not Dürer’s self-portrait but that does not mean it’s without merit.
h/t to The Creator’s Project